Saturday, July 28, 2012

Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue Review

Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, developed by VR Designs and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Dynamic objectives from high command, varied action cards can increase unit abilities or alter goals, centrally hosted play by e-mail, automated supplies and replacements, detailed unit attributes, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Large scale means tedious unit management, needs more smaller scenarios, very brief tutorial
What say you? Intermediate goals and leader action cards elevate this turn-based operational wargame: 6/8

Advanced Tactics stormed onto the strategy scene in 2007 with streamlined (for the genre, at least) force management, simple unit production, random maps, and an engine that could simulate more than just World War II. So, of course, the developer follows up this title with a game set in…World War II. I missed out on the first entry in this series, as I was clearly too busy reviewing Ship Simulator Extremes, but I’m not neglecting the haunting call of wargaming this time around with Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue. The setting is the German invasion of the Caucasus (yes, during World War II), and this new entry purports “tons of new features,” which I can only assume means this version comes with a tank. Where’s my tank? I want my tank!

The graphics of Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue are typical for the wargame genre. The decidedly bland hex map serves as the backdrop; it could have been enhanced with better ground textures and more realistic detail. The units have nice hand-drawn art for each unit type, which adds some flavor to the game. Animations during combat consist of numbers next to unit silhouettes counting down: nothing flashy but the hard numbers are there for the statistical gurus among us. The interface is above the average, placing most everything one click away from the main screen and designed for high-resolution displays. Unit counters can be large with all pertinent information (readiness, integrity, morale, supplies) displayed, or made smaller with no stacking. Units are also color-coded according to the headquarters unit in charge of them, which makes organizing much easier (keep the purples together!). I would have liked the handy unit power rating to be displayed on the smaller chits, but the icons simply run out of room. The top bar provides easy access to the mission briefing, order or battle (with collapsible trees where you can select specific units), turn reports, a minimap, a strategic map (which can display unit HQs and find cities) and action cards. The order buttons are along the bottom, where you can move units, assign a new HQ, destroy bridges, zoom in, or access the officer pool. You must select a target to attack first before assigning units, which is the reverse seen in most wargames, but it becomes intuitive quickly. When a unit is selected, detailed information is also displayed. Movement range can be difficult to see, especially during winter (white highlights on a white background do not work well). Action cards could be better: you need to select a card before seeing how many points it costs, instead of displaying that information at the top of the card along with the name of the action. Finally, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue has a bevy of hotkeys at your disposal. The basic sound effects and music round out the package. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue takes advantage of modern computing in designing a wargame with a generally accessible interface, although the eye candy could be enhanced.

In Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, the Germans are too ambitious and the Soviets repel their attempted invasion of the Caucasus during 1942 and 1943. OR DO THEY? It’s up to you to decide! The game includes several large campaign scenarios that take place on the entire map of the region, and they offer different starting and ending dates to suit your needs: Trappenjagd in May 1942, Case Blue in June 1942 (ending either in August 1942 or April 1943, depending on which length variation you chose), and Operation Uranus in November 1942 until January or April 1943. There is also one linked campaign where you play as the 1st Panzer Army and units carry over to the next scenario, and two short mission that take place in May (2nd Kharkov) and June (Voronezh). I am a huge fan of smaller scenarios that involve, say, one or two armies on a reduced map, so I am disappointed that Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue doesn’t include more of them (or any medium-sized samples). The developer certainly could have just adapted some battles from the larger campaigns, giving you control of a more manageable quantity of units. For a game that purports accessibility, I’m shocked more smaller scenarios were not included. There is an editor included with the game that can be used to alter any existing scenarios; it crashed when I clicked on it so it’s not exactly super stable at the moment.

As you win (and lose) battles, prestige and strategic position change: zero prestige means “game over”, and a more offensive strategic position could result in more objectives from high command. While the major orders are scripted based on previous victories, minor dynamic objectives (take or hold a specific town) throw some uncertainty into the game. The meddling of your superiors makes Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue more interesting and slightly more varied, since you may get different intermediate objectives on your way to total victory (or defeat). While the Germans have to worry about overconfident commanders, the Soviets start with a loss of action points due to their relative disorganization when compared to the Germans; this results in early German victories that even out over time. Special units like Cossacks, partisans, and militia can appear when certain towns are captured. If you enjoy playing with others, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue offers play by e-mail where the games are automatically saved on a server. Finding opponents is easy (you can issue a challenge for a specific scenario, or accept someone else’s), and having the system transfer all of the files for you is fantastic. The tutorial is too short and only covers the very basics; there is a walkthrough in the manual, so why couldn’t that have been incorporated into the game in an interactive manner?

It’s World War II, so the roster of units should not surprise: infantry, engineers, staff, artillery, armor, trucks, anti-tank guns, fighters, dive and level bombers, flak, and naval ships all make appearances, with detailed historical descriptions to increase immersion. Each unit has several attributes that determine their effectiveness: action points (for movement and combat), supplies, integrity, readiness, experience, and entrenchment. The game also combines all of these values into a single number, which makes it easy to find powerful (and vulnerable) units on the field of battle. Units gain experience through training and combat, and become more effective over time. If needed, you can create new divisions or headquarters, and you can manually set replacement, retreat, and supply request percentages. The large scenarios give you a lot of units that you have to move each turn, but the use of group moves and attacks for units in the same division reduces some (but certainly not all) of the micromanagement. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue automatically sends replacements where they are needed (based on the percentages you define), which is very nice. Historical reinforcements also show up, and can be placed in any friendly city. Axis minor nations are also involved in the war, but poor German performance can remove them from the map.

Moving units costs action points, the amount of which is determined by the unit type and the terrain you are moving across. You can also utilize strategic rail transfer to quickly send units to another part of the theatre. Although it is designed to cut down on tedium, group move doesn’t work as often as I would like: units need to be of the same type and in the same division to move as a group, even if they start in the same hex. You will commonly still have to move one unit at a time when things get hectic and disorganized, which, considering the size of the normal campaigns, can become annoying.

Leaders play an important role in Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, more than a simple attribute bonus for the units they lead. Each officer is given a set of cards that can be played every couple of turns (command points, required to play cards, regenerate each turn), the type of which is determined by the leader’s stats (audacity for offense, determination for defense, charisma for morale, and intuition for reconnaissance). Cards give a bonus to one of the units under their command of your choice, and include enhanced attacks, defense, speed, entrenchment, courage, recon, bombardment, promotions, or morale (among many others). The right card at the right time can turn the tide of battle, and I think it’s a fantastic abstraction of the effect that leaders had on their units.

Units on the battlefield are subject to morale, a numerical value that decreases during battle and if undersupplied; units will retreat, panic, or break during combat, depending on their attributes. Supply is also very important in the game. Thankfully, it automatically flows from cities through the HQ to the units, and a color overlay shows where supplies are thin. Artillery units must stockpile ammunition over time, so you cannot continually hammer enemy positions every turn. Oil is used by motorized units, and you can capture on-map fields to boost production (this is the primary goal of the Germans). If you are desperate, you can use air supply to refuel your units, although I don't see how an Australian soft rock duo would help with that. It’s also important to keep units near their HQ, as their organization (and effectiveness) will drastically decrease if they move out of command range. Fog of war can restrict the amount of information concerning the enemy, although you can assign air units to conduct reconnaissance and most units have a fairly large detection range (a couple of hexes, but outlying data might not be totally accurate). The weather (namely snow and mud) and blown bridges can also restrict your movement.

Combat is automated, providing a simple display showing how many units are destroyed and routed as the numerical attributes of the units are evaluated. Concentric attacks, readiness, supply levels, experience, leaders, and entrechment values are all considered when deciding a victor. There is also a stack limit that negatively impacts your attack if you send too many units (too crowded!). Beyond the typical land-based attack, you can also assign artillery barrages, air strikes, naval attacks, and shore bombardments. Unlike most wargames, you actually pick the target first and then assign units to take place in the battle second. It’s initially counterintuitive but Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue actually requires less work: in other wargames, you usually would have to pick one unit, then a target, and then additional support units, adding an extra step in the process. If the defenders put up a good fight, there is a penalty for moving units into the contested hex, which simulates defending attacking troops.

I found the AI opponent to be capable, especially when it is given bonuses for movement, combat, and transfer. You see, the AI cheats on every level above easy, and on higher difficulty settings the game is inherently unfair. The AI performs better in the smaller scenarios where it has less units (and no action cards): the computer opponent will cut off stranded units from supplies, move units to more important areas, use air and artillery strikes, and stack and attack only when appropriate. Frankly, the big scenarios seem to be too complex for the AI, as it is less adept there to counter large-scale strategic actions. You can adjust the AI processing time: it takes about five minutes per turn on the “extra slow” setting during large scenarios (it’s basically instantaneous during the smaller ones), but I feel it’s worth it for a better opponent.

Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue offers three main features that make it more than just another wargame. First, leaders are given cards that can be used every couple of turns to provide significant bonuses to specific units under their command, from attack to defense to movement. You can also use cards to influence the orders from your superiors, who give you new major and minor objectives based on your performance (or lack thereof). This makes a single scenario play out just a bit differently each time. I would like to see medium-sized scenarios included with the game, since the scale of most of the missions is quite daunting. Hopefully, the editor will mean user-generated content in the near future. The PBEM+ system works quite well, giving you a central place to automatically store online matches and making it easy to find opponents. The tutorial is lacking, requiring study of the manual to get a grasp on the game mechanics. The interface helps learning the game, though, as it makes all of the information accessible from the main screen in an intuitive format for the genre. Units are detailed, with plenty of stats that determine effectiveness during combat. A lot of simulating takes place under the hood as well: supplies and replacements are handled automatically, giving the player the ability to worry about large-scale strategy instead of the minutiae of running a military. Though it can take a while to make up its mind on the most thoughtful setting, the AI is a solid opponent that will attack weak areas, pull units for reinforcements, mass units for significant assaults, and handle its large army well. Due to its scale, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue is mildly complex, but it’s still approachable thanks to necessary automation and the interface, and the handful of unique features makes it stand out in the genre.